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Flood of Money Targets Drinking Water Security

Sabotage: Supplies are considered safe, but utilities and cities are spending millions.

July 28, 2002|VICKI KEMPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JANESVILLE, Wis. — When officials discovered last month that intruders had breached the security at one of this town's two drinking water reservoirs, they assessed the evidence, weighed their options and did what any other water utility would have done after Sept. 11.

They drained the tank.

Five million gallons of what turned out to be perfectly good water gushed out of the underground reservoir, flowed through half a mile of storm sewer pipes and onto the Elks Club parking lot before spilling across the Riverside Golf Course and into the placid Rock River.

Aside from that, the decision to flush roughly half a day's water supply down river caused barely a ripple in this Middle American town of 60,000. There was no panic. There was no run on bottled water.

And that was precisely the point.

"People have to have confidence in their drinking water," said Janesville City Manager Steven Sheiffer.

Never mind that life-threatening contamination of an American drinking-water system by terrorists armed with deadly bacteria is all but impossible.

"It would basically require parking a supertanker full of immense quantities of poison in the middle of a supply reservoir," said Peter S. Beering, terrorism preparedness coordinator for the city of Indianapolis and deputy general counsel for the Indianapolis Water Co.

Despite that, utilities are spending vast sums--from tens of thousands to millions of dollars per city--to better secure what all involved know to be the safest of the country's critical infrastructures.

Around the country, this homeland security means, among other things, federally mandated vulnerability assessments, round-the-clock security guards, covers on formerly open reservoirs, enhanced computer security, more frequent and sensitive tests for contaminants and, in some places, higher water rates to help pay for it all.

Officials are also concerned with the possibility of a physical or cyber-attack that would disrupt the supply of water to homes and businesses.

"Everyone is in agreement that the loss of public confidence has to be avoided at all costs," said Rick Hahn, a former FBI agent whose consulting company devised a security plan for Los Angeles' far-flung water system.

Beering predicted that eventually "we'll get to the point where people are no longer interested in dumping money on things you never see."

But for now, cities and ratepayers appear willing to pay whatever it takes to buy peace of mind. It has to do "with the city being able to say, 'This water is safe,' " said Daniel L. Lynch, director of Janesville's water and wastewater utilities.

Reassuring the Janesville public has meant, among other things, bolting a 2,100-pound concrete block to the top of the already virtually unliftable hatch cover. Lynch said: "There's no way in the world anybody can get into that thing, short of a tank."

Yet Lynch, who believes the recent security breach was nothing more than a few kids on a dare, will soon oversee the erection of a fence around the hatch. Earlier this year, the entire reservoir property was enclosed by a 7-foot-high, barbed-wire-topped fence.

Water systems were at the top of the federal government's heightened security list even before the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon on Sept. 11. A month afterward, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman tried to reassure a rattled public:

"People are worried that a small amount of some chemical or biological agent--a few drops, for instance--could result in significant threats to the health of large numbers of people," she said. "I want to assure people, that just can't happen."

Despite evidence of terrorist interest--President Bush reported in his State of the Union address that American troops had recovered diagrams of public water systems from Al Qaeda hide-outs in Afghanistan--experts agree that U.S. water systems are, for the most part, safe from saboteurs.

Water utilities "are in the business of purifying water," said Beering, the terrorism expert and water company official. They run hundreds of tests a day on both raw and treated water.

Nearly any poison dumped into a water system would be neutralized in the water treatment process, agreed Adam Dolnik, a research associate for the Monterey Institute's Terrorism Project.

As a result, he said, terrorists aiming to kill or sicken large numbers of people would have to pump substantial quantities of contaminants into a water supply after it had been treated. That too is technologically difficult.

"You can't watch every faucet," but increased testing by water utilities at a greater number of sites since Sept. 11 means detection of foreign substances is more likely than ever, said Hahn, the security consultant.

What most worries Hahn is the potential for an attack on a utility's computer network. The resulting disruption of water service would have "a tremendous economic impact, as well as a psychological impact," Hahn said.

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